5,000-year-old homes shed new light on 'henge people'

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The Independent Online

A 5,000-year-old settlement that sheds new light on one of Britain's most mysterious prehistoric religious complexes has been unearthed by archaeologists.

Excavations in Northumberland have revealed the existence of a previously unknown settlement, which was probably associated with a nearby series of nine prehistoric ritual centres. Although archaeologists have found scores of circular ritual monuments - or henges - all over Britain, they have never discovered the houses where the henge people lived.

So far the investigations have revealed three houses from the period of the local henge complex - the largest such complex in Britain. Each building was rectangular and made of timber and possibly thatch. The largest was 13 metres long and 5 metres wide.

Dr Jonathan Last,head of research policy for prehistory at English Heritage, said: "To find the remains of so many buildings from the Neolithic period grouped together is incredibly important. This exciting discovery offers huge potential to improve our understanding of Neolithic ways of life in the north-east of England."

The houses are 900m from the series of henge monuments - the largest of which was 100m in diameter and surrounded by banks, ditches and scores of wooden obelisks. Nearby, the archaeologists have also found a much earlier settlement dating from around 1,000 years before the henges were constructed. This earlier settlement appears to have consisted of two roundhouses and a grain storage building - and this reveals bizarre evidence of prehistoric ritual practice. Inside one of the houses, archaeologists have found the remains of a human skeleton buried in a pit. It is possible that the individual - a child or teenager - was a close relative who the inhabitants of the house wanted to keep within the family, even after death.

This earlier settlement - dating from 6,000 years ago - has also yielded three storage pits, probably used originally to store grain but ultimately used to contain some sort of refuse, possibly of a ritualised nature. In one pit archaeologists have found a rough-out for a carved stone ball, of a type thought to have been used in ceremonial rituals.

Neolithic houses in England are relatively rare. There are many known in Ireland. Some have been discovered in Scotland, but in England only about 30 had previously been found.